The Karoo is a pristine landscape characterised by expansive arid plains and mountain ranges. This dry, barren region is sprinkled with historic towns, hardy wildlife, fossils and rock art and a wine route and offers interesting activities for the young-at-heart.
The Cape Karoo region is one of the world’s most unique arid zones, yet it has been inhabited for more than 500 000 years by the Khoi-San and provides a home to a variety of wildlife including the springbok, klipspringer, kudu, eland, hyrax, zebra, bat-eared fox, fallow deer, ostrich and lynx.
The Karoo National Park is home to the endangered black rhinoceros, quagga and riverine rabbit. Birdlife is prolific and raptors are commonly seen hovering over the plains in search of prey.
The Karoo has been home to generations of indigenous Khoi-San, who have left their mark in the form of rock art in caves and on rock faces throughout the area.
The fossil-rich terrain is home to some of the most important archaeological sites in the world. Near Beaufort West and Nelspoort, Stone Age sites have been unearthed.
Prince Albert, a small village split by a railway line in the heart of the Karoo, may be approached through three major gateways: Swartberg Pass, Meiringspoort and Seweweekspoort, which link the Central Karoo with the Klein Karoo and the coast.
The village showcases beautifully preserved Cape Dutch, Karoo and Victorian architectural styles, with 13 buildings having been declared national monuments in recognition of their unique beauty and historical significance.
Here you’ll find wholesome fare such as fresh sun-ripened fruit, olives, cheeses, freshly baked bread and Karoo lamb.
Meiringspoort and the 27km-long Swartberg Pass are on Prince Albert’s doorstep and fall within the Swartberg Nature Reserve. The Swartberg Pass is considered one of the most spectacular mountain passes in the world and is a World Heritage Site.
Beaufort West is of great interest to archaeologists who believe that its rocks date back 230-million years. Among many ancient artefacts discovered here and at Nelspoort, are fine examples of ancient Bushman engravings and rock art.
The town and surrounds has much to offer the visitor, from game lodges, nature reserves and guest farms to safari tours, hiking and 4x4 trails, game drives and mountain biking.
The town boasts a wealth of early architecture ranging from Victorian, Georgian and Edwardian to Romanesque, neo-Gothic, neo-Classic and Cape Dutch.
In the town of Laingsburg, a white quartz band across the hills is evidence of continental drift. This area is a geologist’s goldmine, and rich in fauna and flora.
Laingsburg also boasts a flood museum and a variety of craft houses selling woodwork, woollen products and wire toys.
Once a busy farming town, Murraysburg is now a quiet village in the shadows of the Sneeuberg and features ambling old houses, beautifully kept gardens and the charm of ageing windmills reminiscent of a bygone era.
When original residential plots were sold, every plot was required by law to be fenced by a quince hedge. As a result, Murraysburg once had the longest quince hedging in the world.
It is a town and region that has fascinated poets and artists throughout the ages and has been the subject of many photographic exhibitions.
Talented crafters fashion metal-ware collectables, pottery, upholstery, canvasses, decoupage, papier mâché, fabric printing, painted ostrich eggs, stained glass, glass engraving, porcelain restoration, woodwork and wood carvings.
Rolling plains, the mountain and river make this a perfect outdoor destination where hiking trails, fishing, swimming, mountain biking, 4x4 trails, bird watching and game-viewing are on offer.
The best times for hiking the Swartberg trails are April to May, and September to October. Opt for easy day hikes, or challenging five-day hikes with unspoiled views and sleep in overnight huts at Ou Tol, Gouekrans and Bothashoek.
The arid nature of the Karoo is belied by the small towns that beckon like so many oases to the weary traveller. There are many pursuits and pleasures to be found at each.
Six of the best
Beaufort West’s black eagles
The Karoo National Park is a wildlife reserve located within the Great Karoo, on the outskirts of Beaufort West, 311 miles (482km) north of Cape Town. Train your binoculars on an abundance of raptors – buzzard, goshawk, kestrel – and the 20 pairs of breeding black eagles living in this protected park.
The scenic Swartberg Pass
The 27km-long Swartberg Pass is considered one of the finest mountain passes in the world. An untarred road edged by hand-packed stone walls winds its way to the summit at 1583m above sea level, presenting the visitor with breathtaking views at every turn – an ideal hiking venue.
Christiaan Barnard and Beaufort-West
The world’s pioneering heart surgeon, South Africa’s Christiaan Barnard, was born in Beaufort West. The local museum houses memorabilia and a replica of the operating theatre at Cape Town’s Groote Schuur Hospital, where the world’s first heart transplant took place in 1967.
The fossil-rich terrain of the Karoo features some of the most important archaeological sites in the world. Pay a visit to the towns of Beaufort West and Nelspoort, where Stone Age sites and Bushman engravings have been found, or try the Karoo Fossil Braille Trail (at the Karoo National Park) designed for handicapped visitors, showcasing the geology and fossil-wealth of the Great Karoo.
Meditate at the Karoo Labyrinth
The Karoo Labyrinth in Bank Street, Prince Albert, is constructed from local materials, which represent the Celtic spirits of Earth, Water, Fire and Air. The St John’s Karoo Labyrinth is a place to commune with God, where solitude, or companionable silence, will enrich your spiritual life.
Take a ghostly stroll – if you dare!
Indulge in a pre-dinner walk around the streets of Prince Albert, in the company of the village ghosts. A narrator and guide relates tales of a bygone era and of the many characters who have lived in the village over the years – and of the ghosts who don't want to leave!
Image credits for Six of the Best. From top to bottom: 1. Black eagle. Photo courtesy riverside mc 2. Heading into the Swartberg. Photo courtesy jeremyhughes 3. South African cardiac surgeon, Christiaan Barnard. Photo courtesy email@example.com 4. Fossil therapsid, Karoo National Park. Photo courtesy flowcomm 5. Labyrinth. Photo courtesy Psmiffy 6. Dutch gable. Photo courtesy jeremyhughes
Take the N1 national highway (which runs through to Johannesburg) from Cape Town north towards Laingsburg. The N1 to Beaufort West takes you to the “capital” of the Great Karoo.
From Johannesburg, follow the N1 via Colesberg.
There is a small airport located in Beaufort West, but this is not a public airport. For charter enquiries, call the airport on +27 23 414 3444 or +27 83 321 9399.
The region can be extremely hot in spring and summer (September to March) and the winters can be sunny, but chilly, particularly at night. The ideal time to visit is from March to April, when you can drive to Oudtshoorn for the annual Klein Karoo National Arts Festival.
- Beaufort West
- Prince Albert
Cape Central Karoo Tourism
Tel: +27 23 449 1000
Fax: +27 23 414 3675